In a recent conversation with a high school history teacher, I asked if he was aware of any time in our country’s past when the vitriol directed at a sitting president was as malicious as what I read and hear about our current commander-in-chief. I asked partly out of curiosity, but mostly in hopes of being able to defend my condemnation of some of the insane-asylum crazy stuff I read on Facebook (that is not to disparage my many friends who post cogent, passionate statements criticizing the Obama administration; y’all are OK in my book).
My teacher friend burst my bubble by replying, “Oh no! Don’t you remember what they said about Bush during the whole WMD thing? And how Clinton was skewered over the Lewinsky scandal? And when Ford pardoned Nixon? In fact, did you know that Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to disparage him by accusing him of prostituting his wife for money?” Wow. And I thought the rodeo clown who dressed up as Obama was mean-spirited.
I thought that civil discourse is at an all-time low in our country, but maybe not. Maybe we’ve been unable to have adult conversations and friendly disagreements since Millard Fillmore was running a meth lab out of the Lincoln Room (please note this claim is not yet substantiated). I bet this issue is more in the forefront of our thinking because so much more discourse is taking place in public forums. It used to be that you could call someone “Professor Poopypants” and no one would know but you and the aforementioned academician. Now, call someone that and before you know it the video has gone viral and starts trending and gets hashtagged and does a bunch of other things that means everyone knows what you said. In other words, maybe the level of civil discourse hasn’t changed; maybe what’s changed is how accessible the incivility has become.
Is there a better way? Is there a higher standard of relationship (especially with our enemies) to which we can strive? In her nifty little book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong explores this question in the chapter titled, “How Should We Speak to One Another?” (Spoiler alert: Not by yelling). She starts by noting that Socratic dialogue was meant to be a spiritual exercise designed to help each person understand the depth of their own ignorance. She then shares the Buddhist teaching that knowledge isa process of self-discovery by looking inwardly, not refuting outwardly. She advocates for a 21st century form of Socrates’ discourse that is defined by compassion for, not competition with, the other.
Here’s a thought that would change the essential nature of most Facebook posts I read: “We should make a point of asking ourselves whether we want to win the argument or seek the truth, whether we are ready to change our views if the evidence is sufficiently compelling, and whether we are making ‘place for the other’ in our minds.” That’s a far cry from one of my Facebook friends who said it’s her job to criticize our current president, even when confronted with evidence rendering the criticism unfounded. It’s hard to make a place for the other in our minds when we’ve already filled it with what we believe is the Truth.
I wonder if part of the issue in these uncivil wars is our foundation. Too often we start such conversations assuming there’s an “us” and there’s a “them,” and we already know who is right and who is @%$*@ wrong. Is there any room for the benefit of the doubt? Armstrong writes, “When making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker shares the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.” In other words, if we honestly try to make sense of someone else’s claim, no matter how whacked-out we feel it is, we might find more truth in what they have to say than we see at first glance.
Our views aren’t always right just because they are ours. And others’ views aren’t always wrong just because they’re NOT ours. Would our conversations change if we started from a point of commonality – our shared human nature, our common passion for an issue, our desire to seek the truth? Would our discourse become more civil if we sought to understand each other’s view rather than vigorously assert our own? Something has to change, or else we’re going to become a culture that only knows how to yell at each other. And if that happens, the still, small voice of God gets completely drowned out.